Mountaineering is melting

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The Bivacco Alberico, otherwise known as the Bivouac de la Fourche, was a beautiful wooden hut built near the summit of Mont Maudit in 1935 to house mountaineers en route to the peaks of Maudit and Mont Blanc. The hut was perched on the raging, vertiginous edge of the mountain ridge, a small nest that could accommodate 15 people in one of the most inaccessible regions of Europe, a monument in homage and in defiance of the rugged serenity of the Alps . It’s gone now. On August 25, a rockslide sent the entire cabin crashing into the Brenva Glacier below, where it will rest forever. No one was hurt in the collapse, as the hut had been rendered inaccessible by the conditions that caused the landslide: a lack of glacial ice sticking rocks together. Club Alpino Accademico Italiano, which broke the news first, wrote: “The mountain of the future will be different from what we have known so far.

Image via Club Alpino Accademico Italiano/Facebook

The Alps as we know them are being radically reshaped by Europe’s ongoing historic drought, a prolonged state of arid conditions so dire that receding waters peel away layers of history as they vaporize. Sunken Nazi warships have risen from the bed of the Danube, an ancient megalithic monument has emerged from a quarter-full reservoir in Spain, and a famous stupid bridge built by the moronic Roman emperor Nero is now fully visible instead of to be buried under the Tiber. The European Commission has estimated it could be the continent’s worst drought in 500 years, an odd number that seems less abstract for all the history it reveals; it will certainly not be the worst drought of the next 500 years.

These rivers will refill again, likely beyond their capacity at some point, although the dramatic melting of alpine glaciers currently underway is permanent. Temperatures in the Alps have risen roughly twice the global average. The stage was set for this summer’s series of disasters last winter, when it barely snowed. Although the cause of low snowfall and rapid melting is the same (global warming), neither of these conditions is unprecedented. What is different, at least in degree, is the brutal one-two, where a bad snow season was followed by a hellish summer. The loss of Bivacco Alberico is just one of many seismic (in some cases, literally) events that rocked the Alps this hellish summer.

On July 3, 11 people were killed and eight people were injured while mountaineering on the dolomitic peak Marmolada after a serac – essentially a wall-like mass of glacial ice – broke off and caused an avalanche. Temperatures at Marmolada’s summit were over 50°F, causing a chunk of ice to break off which a team of French scientists later estimated was 80 meters by 25 meters from the glacier and rolling down the mountain. The Italian Prime Minister at the time, Mario Draghi, made explicit the link between the disaster and climate change. Marmolada was the most notorious incident this summer, although many more people died and the number of people in need of relief soared, straining the capacity of aid workers.

Following the Marmolada disaster, guides stopped offering tours of iconic alpine peaks like Mont Blanc and the Matterhorn. The mayor of Saint Gervais, a French town that is the de facto gateway to Mont Blanc, has closed the hugely popular refuges of Tête Rousse and Goûter after would-be climbers kept trying to conquer the mountain despite the danger obvious to do so. He was so mad that he announced he would seek €15,000 bail from “irresponsible fools” bent on “seeking death in the form of suicide” while climbing Mont Blanc.

There is no way to reverse what is happening in the Alps. They will not rebuild the Bivacco Alberico, as soon there will be no more glacial ice on which to build it. I think the role of glaciers can best be understood as the control of space over Earth’s ambitions. The dynamics of each mountain range is a cosmic contest between uplift and erosion, two opposing forces pulling and pushing millions of cubic meters of rock from within the Earth or toward its surface. Ultimately, erosion always wins. Each rise eventually comes to a halt, but the Earth keeps moving, blasting even the highest peaks with rain, wind, and ice. At Earth’s highest elevations, erosion operates on a different scale than any of its colleagues. While rain leaves beautiful V-shaped river valleys, a seeping glacier pushing its weight on the Earth will carve U-shaped earth gouges, leaving behind great air voids, like Yosemite Valley. Any mountain range that points its peaks too far into the upper layer of the atmosphere will eventually be ruthlessly felled.

This dynamic still holds under global warming, although the point at which snow falls in quantities large enough to unionize into a glacier is increasing. Every one degree (Celsius) increase in temperature results in a corresponding increase of 150 meters in elevation of the snow line. The glaciation point is even higher than that, and if you repeat this dismal process long enough, you will eventually run out of glaciers. Glaciers in the continental United States are melting faster than ever. The last glacial resisters in Indonesia are rapidly dying. You probably know what is happening in Greenland. Alpine glaciers are marvelous organs, witnesses of the Earth’s involuntary ability to self-regulate. They’re not supposed to move on human timescales, but they don’t move on geological timescales either. They’re supposed to be a ligament between our human-sized perception of time and the inability to hold the concept of, like, a billion years in your head. Climbing a glacier seems like a powerful and frightening way to commune with this dissonance, and I don’t know how long this will be possible in Europe.

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